An outright victory against Australia will give Pakistan an outstanding chance of advancing to the semi-finals
It’s the seemingly unstoppable force that answers to the name of Shane Watson that will occupy much of Pakistan’s mind space as it goes into Tuesday’s must-win game against Australia.
To term Watson’s run in this tournament a purple patch would be an obvious understatement. Watson has easily been the standout player of the competition, with his magical batting and the happy knack of picking up wickets, even if not all of them have come off wicket-taking deliveries. Four matches played, four man of the match awards won. Cricket in general, and Twenty20 cricket in particular, might appear oh-so-easy for Watson now.
Pakistan’s progress at the ICC World Twenty20 2012 will not necessarily be guaranteed if, somehow, it finds a way to breach Watson’s defences early on, but if it allows the right-hand batsman to get off to a start, then it will surely be up against it.
Having looked so impressive in the initial phase of the competition, Pakistan has dramatically gone off the boil in the Super Eights. It huffed and puffed its way to victory against South Africa last Friday, thanks in no small measure to the composure shown by Umar Akmal and an extraordinary blitz from Umar Gul. It was then easily defeated by India on Sunday night, leaving its future in the tournament hanging by a slender thread.
Pakistan must defeat Australia on Tuesday afternoon at the R Premadasa Stadium to give itself an outstanding chance of advancing to the semi-finals, like it has done in each of the three previous ICC World Twenty20s. Victory will not guarantee it a place in the last four, just as defeat will not necessarily eliminate it – all that will depend on how the final Group 2 match between India and South Africa pans out – but Pakistan can ill afford to dwell on the permutations and combinations because its immediate task will be to halt the thundering Australian juggernaut by any means.
The confidence in the Pakistani camp has to be at a low ebb after the eight-wicket drubbing by India. Australia will bring an entirely different skill-set, especially with the ball, and put Pakistan through a stern pace-oriented examination. This will be a test of not just Pakistan’s nerve, hunger and temperament, but also of its cricketing technique.
As invincible as Australia has looked all tournament, Pakistan will reflect on the events in the United Arab Emirates and believe that it has what it takes to subdue George Bailey’s unbeaten side. Pakistan won a three-match Twenty20 International series 2-1 – winning by a mile in the first game, clinching a Super Over finish in the second and being beaten by a distance in the third in another show of the inconsistency that has always dogged its cricket.
Through that series, and the preceding One-Day International matches, though, it was obvious that several of Australia’s batsmen just couldn’t pick Saeed Ajmal and his multiple variations. Much of the running even there, during the T20I series, was done by Watson and, to a lesser extent, David Warner, who have been instrumental in getting Australia off to a flier almost every single time. The middle order, certainly undercooked because it hasn’t got any game time in this tournament, looked decidedly unsure of which way the ball was going to turn. Not for the first time, Ajmal will therefore hold the key, but he will need generous help from his batsmen, who have found the going tough in this phase of the competition.
Strangely enough, Pakistan has been found wanting in conditions that it is not unused to. The batting thrived on belters in Pallekele but here at the Premadasa, where the pitches have been less conducive to stroke-production, Pakistan has fluffed its lines badly. It made heavy weather of a straightforward chase against South Africa, slumping to 76 for 7 before being bailed out by the two Umars, and was shot out for 128 by India. Australia, masters at paying attention to detail, will have taken those collapses on board, though it will continue to back its pace attack of Watson, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc to make the early inroads.
Xavier Doherty’s success on Sunday against South Africa has given Bailey an additional, attacking spin option to go with Brad Hogg’s left-arm wrist spin. Australia will be tempted to persist with Doherty at the continued expense of Daniel Christian, useful with his medium-pace but perhaps less of a wicket-taker than Doherty.
Having tinkered with its batting order and tried to blast the new ball out of the park, Pakistan will revisit its approach at the start of the innings, and think long and hard over Yasir Arafat’s role in the playing XI. There is a hint of uncertainty, if not panic, within the Pakistani rank and file, but no team is more dangerous when cornered than Pakistan. That’s what makes watching it a special experience.